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Richmond struggles to provide public Internet access, but computers proliferate

on October 14, 2011

More than 750 families in the city’s low-income Iron Triangle neighborhood now have computers in their homes thanks to a two-year effort by a coalition of nonprofit agencies working to make broadband Internet access widely available there. But the group is still facing frustration in its effort to set up a public-access wireless network.

“We don’t think it’s a perk anymore — it’s not an amenity. We think of it as a necessity,” said Richmond Housing Authority Executive Director Tim Jones about Internet access in public housing complexes.

“If your transportation is limited … imagine being able to just log onto your computer at home and being able to search [for a job] there. You have access now to quite a few more options than what the bus 72 would get you to.”

Building Blocks for Kids, a group of nonprofit organizations and government agencies working to improve the quality of life in the Iron Triangle, launched the program two years ago.

Using $500,000 provided by the California Emerging Technology Fund, the group has put about 800 parents through a four-hour computer literacy course and given refurbished computers to about 750 of the families.

But what hasn’t materialized is the public-access community WiFi network the group envisioned. The plan entailed installing WiFi transmitters on some of the public housing buildings that Jones oversees.

Luis Perez, the director of digital literacy programs with Building Blocks for Kids, said the organization spent about $25,000 of the grant money on WiFi repeaters — antennas for transmitting wireless signals. But Perez said the group couldn’t legally connect the antennas to any underground commercial Internet backbone for the purpose of providing public Internet access.

In 2009, the city tried to secure funding for a public underground Internet infrastructure, applying for about $2 million in federal stimulus money to install broadband cables that would have connected public housing and other city-owned buildings to the city’s main data center.

But the Department of Commerce denied the request, according to Richmond Information Technology Director Sue Hartman.

“We had planned to broadcast Internet access to the underserved community,” Hartman said. But the Commerce Department did not believe a local government could provide “sustainable long-term Internet access to the community,” Hartman said.

Nevertheless, Building Blocks for Kids did install two of the WiFi antennas it purchased on its office on First Street, and about 30-40 people a month connect to it regularly, Perez said.

He also said many of the families in the program who have been given a computer have since signed up for commercial Internet access. With the free computer, they had money enough for Internet service.

Perez said Building Blocks for Kids also met this summer with representatives of the nonprofit Internet Archive, which has a warehouse in Richmond with a public-access wireless antenna on top of it, and talked about setting up an experimental public WiFi project with them. Perez said Internet entrepreneur Brewster Kahle was at the meeting.

Next Monday, the Richmond Community Foundation — a Building Blocks for Kids partner — will launch what will be called the Internet Essentials programs with Comcast, which will provide Internet access for about $10 a month to families who have a child in the public school free lunch program.

Perez said helping low-income families use technology to support their children’s education is “the fundamental goal behind why we felt we needed to bring this program into the Iron Triangle.”

Both Perez and Hartman said the city will continue to look for ways to provide community broadband Internet access. Perez pointed to the example of the WiFi 101 program in East Palo Alto that has received major funding from Hewlett Packard, saying it is likely a major corporate funder will need to be involved.

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